Edinburgh Fringe gets down with the referendum

All Back To Bowie's is one production that will take inspiration from the independence referendum
All Back To Bowie's is one production that will take inspiration from the independence referendum
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COMEDIANS, musicians, actors, authors and playwrights have revealed they will be taking part in Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows inspired by the debate over Scotland’s future.

The Scotsman can reveal at least 12 different productions will be staged across the city based on the first batch of shows to start selling tickets on the Fringe website.

Hardman actor David Hayman, Rab C Nesbitt star Elaine C Smith, singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, playwright David Greig and comics Fred MacAulay and Vladimir McTavish will be among those involved in referendum-themed shows.

The line-up includes shows entitled A Split Decision, Now’s The Hour, MacBraveheart, Aye Right? How No? and All Back To Bowie’s.

And although some shows appear to be taking a relatively neutral stance, just one of the shows confirmed so far - The British Referendum - will be arguing in favour of the Union. It is being staged by an American comedian, with Scottish roots, Erich McElroy, who has lived in England for the last 14 years.

The majority of the shows inspired by the debate have been programmed by promoter Tommy Sheppard - a high-profile supporter of independence from the cultural sector - at the Assembly Rooms, the new Fringe arena in St Andrew Square and at the Stand Comedy Club venues.

They include The Pitiless Storm, which will see Hayman playing a left-wing trade union figure forced to question his beliefs in the face of pre-referendum political upheaval, and All Back to Bowie’s, a lunchtime variety show featuring a mix of “politics, poetry, polemic and pop”.

In Now’s The Hour, the Scottish Youth Theatre will use sketches, monologues and music to explore what the referendum could mean for the younger generation of voters, A Split Decision will see comedian Keir McAllister examine whether the “dysfunctional relationship” at the heart of the debate can be resolved, while Only An Excuse’s creator Phil Differ’s satirical play MacBraveheart is said to be “rooted in the past of a dystopian pre-independence future”

The bumper line-up of Fringe shows have emerged in the wake of the controversy over the Edinburgh International Festival’s refusal to tackle the debate directly in its programme this summer.

Director Sir Jonathan Mills sparked anger last year when he revealed that his swansong festival would instead be inspired by the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games. It later emerged he had commissioned The James Plays, a historical trilogy by playwright Rona Munro, although they are set entirely in the 15th century.

Sheppard, who has also programmed a show by South African comic Andy Zaltzman, Scottishreferendogeddon, said: “A cultural festival that does not to reflect the very environment in which it is taking place it just not worth happening in my opinion. For something as big as the Fringe, it would just be ludicrous to ignore the referendum.

“I didn’t set out to programme events arguing for one side or the other, but what has happened is probably of a reflection of the level of support for independence from the artistic sector. I didn’t get a single proposal for a show arguing in favour of the Union.

“I think the number of shows that we’ve got is a reflection of the fact that we are based in Scotland while a lot of the other big venues are being programmed from London.

“I don’t think it’s a case of overkill at all. We are talking about nine shows in our programmes, 161 of them have nothing whatsoever to do with the referendum.”

Greig, whose play The Events, partly inspired by the Breivik massacre in Norway was one of the big hits of last year’s Fringe, told The Scotsman: “For me, the energy of Yes demands a show to try to capture the moment - the amazing amount of ideas and thinking the referendum is producing on every area of Scottish life.

“It’s politically and intellectually the fizziest time I’ve experience in my working life. On top of that - so many artists and musicians are involved in campaigning. This means that a great deal of Yes activity seems to end up with sessions, or poems being read, or books talked about and so on. For me it just makes sense to try and use the festival as a chance to bottle that energy.”

Writer Alan Bissett, whose play The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant will star Elaine C Smith, said the stance of the EIF last year had partly inspired artists to stage shows at this year’s Fringe.

He said: “I think many artists were pretty stunned at Mills’s decision, which was at best myopic and at worst a deliberate attempt to marginalise the debate. But I think most of us would have gone ahead and done something anyway.

It’s possibly put more wind in our sails, in that we want to make up for that invisibility at the Edinburgh International Festival.

“This Fringe will go down as one of the most significant in the history of the Fringe. So often there’s no real ‘Scottish’ element of the Fringe or Festival at all, which is fine, as both of them are international and pluralist. But that won’t be the case this year.

“I think there will be a huge appetite from audiences, both home and international, to learn about the debate.

“Many people, including Scots, are probably still scratching their heads about it, and will want to absorb the debate obliquely, in a way that’s not pre-programmed by parties or news formats. Obviously people will want to see shows about other things as well, but I’d imagine the referendum will be at the front of people’s minds by August and they’ll be hungry for satire and theatre on that theme.”

Comedian McElroy, who will preview his show at the Brighton Fringe next month before bringing it north to Edinburgh, has said that the promise of independence is like “they’re tearing the top floor off the old family house.”

McElroy, who will be part of Just the Tonic’s programme, said: “People in England don’t seem to be aware of what is happening in Scotland at the moment at all.”

The one show that promises to dish out the abuse to all sides in equal measures will be staged at the Acoustic Music Centre by satirical musical duo Playing Politics, best known for their appearances at the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards, whose Fringe show is billed as “lyrically savage, musically adroit and totally unbroadcastable.”